Joe Rogan and his podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, are at the center of growing concerns over COVID-19 misinformation and the host's use of racial slurs in dozens of episodes. This has put pressure on Spotify, the music streaming service that signed the comedian to an exclusivity deal in 2020.
In January, rock legend Neil Young pulled his music from Spotify over objections to false claims about COVID-19 vaccines on Rogan's popular podcast. Some other artists joined the boycott, but the backlash grew soon after when a compilation video of Rogan using a racial slur on numerous past episodes began circulating on social media.
Spotify CEO Daniel Ek confirmed that Rogan chose to remove multiple episodes of his popular podcast from the streaming service after the company's leadership discussed his use of "racially insensitive language," according to a memo sent to employees.
Spotify continues to grapple with a dilemma that many internet giants like Facebook and YouTube face: balancing freedom of expression and effective moderation of objectionable content on their platforms. It views Rogan as a key component to its growth as an audio platform, and the comedian has said being able to express himself is one of the reasons he moved his podcast to the streaming service. The company paid the comedian a reported $200 million, double the amount previously thought, according to a report from The New York Times Thursday.
Rogan posted an apology to Instagram on Feb. 5, saying he "wasn't trying to be racist" and agreeing that he shouldn't use such slurs, regardless of the context. Rogan said the backlash was a "political hit job" in an episode of his podcast posted on Feb. 8 but added that it was a "relief" to address comments he regrets making.
Here's what you need to know about the backlash against Joe Rogan and Spotify.
Why were episodes of Rogan's podcast removed?
Videos of Rogan using racial slurs on past episodes went viral on social media at the end of January. This was layered on top of a growing musician boycott over concerns that Rogan's podcast serves as a platform for COVID misinformation. The hashtags #DeleteSpotify and #CancelSpotify began trending on Twitter as some people called for the removal of Rogan's podcast. A consumer poll from Feb. 1 found 19% of Spotify subscribers said they canceled or will cancel their service, according to a report from Variety.
On Feb. 4, a fan-made website found that more than 100 episodes of Rogan's podcast were no longer available on Spotify. The website, JREMissing, uses Spotify's API to compare available episodes to a database of all episodes recorded. A total of 113 episodes of Rogan's podcast were shown to be removed: 42 happened last year when Rogan moved his show to Spotify. The other 71 were deleted on Feb. 4 without explanation at the time.
Ek sent a memo to Spotify employees about the development on Feb. 6. He confirmed that Rogan chose to remove multiple episodes of his podcast from the streaming service. This came after Spotify's leadership spoke to the comedian about his use of "racially insensitive language."
CNET couldn't confirm a link between the circulating videos and the episodes that were removed from Spotify.
"Some of Joe Rogan's comments [are] incredibly hurtful -- I want to make clear that they do not represent the values of this company," Ek wrote in the memo, which was provided to CNET by a company spokeswoman. "While I strongly condemn what Joe has said and I agree with his decision to remove past episodes from our platform, I realize some will want more. And I want to make one point very clear -- I do not believe that silencing Joe is the answer."
Ek went on to say the company would invest $100 million -- the earlier reported amount it paid to Rogan for exclusivity rights -- for the "licensing, development, and marketing of music (artists and songwriters) and audio content from historically marginalized groups. This will dramatically increase our efforts in these areas."
Spotify didn't respond to a request for comment on whether it will increase the investment to $200 million to match the newly reported amount of Rogan's deal.
What has Rogan said about this?
Rogan uploaded a video to his Instagram account on Feb. 5, the day after the podcast episodes were removed, in which he talked about his use of racial slurs and apologized for his actions.
"I certainly wasn't trying to be racist," he said, "and I certainly would never want to offend someone for entertainment with something as stupid as racism." Rogan agreed he shouldn't use such slurs, regardless of the context.
In episode #1773 of his podcast, Rogan had comedian Akaash Singh on and started the show talking about the blowup, saying it was a "relief."
"This is a political hit job," he said on his podcast. "They're taking all this stuff I've ever said that's wrong and smooshing it all together. It's good because it makes me address some s*** that I really wish wasn't out there."
How did this all get started?
In December, Rogan had two guests on his show who have been at the forefront of COVID misinformation. Dr. Peter McCullough, a cardiologist, and Dr. Robert Malone, who has described himself as the inventor of the mRNA vaccine, have used their credentials to try to give credibility to false conspiracy theories regarding the pandemic and vaccines.
COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at reducing hospitalizations and deaths, and other public health measures like masking and social distancing have helped slow the spread of the virus. The dangers of the illness are clear. To date, there have been more than 419 million cases of COVID-19 around the world and more than 5.8 million deaths, according to the coronavirus resource center at Johns Hopkins University.
On Jan. 12, 250 doctors, professors and researchers signed an open letter to Spotify calling out the streaming service for platforming COVID misinformation, in particular on Rogan's podcast. Since then, more than 1,000 additional medical professionals have signed the letter.
After coming across the letter, singer-songwriter Young, who rose to fame in the 1960s and '70s, made an ultimatum to Spotify on Jan. 24: either Rogan goes or his music goes. He removed his music Jan. 27, but some songs featuring Young with other artists are still on the platform.
Other musicians joined Young in a boycott of the service, including:
- Joni Mitchell.
- Bruce Springsteen E Street Band member Nils Lofgren.
- Singer and songwriter India Arie.
- The members of the folk rock trio Crosby, Stills and Nash (that is, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash).
The controversy escalated when Grammy-winning singer Arie joined the boycott, saying she found Rogan problematic, not just for his interviews around COVID, but also his language around race.
Is Spotify doing anything about COVID misinformation on its platform?
Following the musicians' protest over COVID misinformation, Ek responded in a blog post Jan. 30, saying his company doesn't want to be a "content censor" but will make sure that its rules are easy to find and that there are consequences for spreading misinformation. He acknowledged that Spotify hasn't been transparent about them, which led to questions about their application to serious issues including COVID-19.
"Based on the feedback over the last several weeks, it's become clear to me that we have an obligation to do more to provide balance and access to widely accepted information from the medical and scientific communities guiding us through this unprecedented time," Ek said.
Included in the post was a link to Spotify's platform rules detailing what content isn't allowed on the service. Regarding COVID misinformation, the rules specifically prohibit saying that COVID-19 isn't real, encouraging the consumption of bleach to cure diseases, saying vaccines lead to death and suggesting people get infected to build immunity.
Ek also said the company is working on a content advisory for any podcast episode that talks about COVID. The advisory will guide listeners to the service's COVID-19 hub.
In a Feb. 2 company town hall, Ek told Spotify employees that Rogan's podcast was key to the future of Spotify, according to audio obtained by The Verge.
"If we want even a shot at achieving our bold ambitions, it will mean having content on Spotify that many of us may not be proud to be associated with," Ek said during the town hall. "Not anything goes, but there will be opinions, ideas and beliefs that we disagree with strongly and even makes us angry or sad."
Spotify employees were reportedly disappointed by his remarks. Members of the company's board of directors were also reportedly not happy with the response according to The New York Times.
In an Instagram post Jan. 30, Rogan defended his choice to bring on guests like Malone but said he was happy for Spotify to add disclaimers to podcasts on what he called "controversial" topics. He added that if he could do anything differently, it would be to get experts with differing opinions on directly after "controversial ones."
Who else had something to say about this?
The White House chimed in on Spotify's move to add misinformation warnings to podcast episodes. In a Feb. 1 press briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki was asked if tech companies should go further than these disclaimers.
"Our hope Is that all major tech platforms, and all major news sources for that matter, be responsible and be vigilant to ensure the American people have access to accurate information on something as significant as COVID-19. That certainly includes Spotify," Psaki said. "So this disclaimer, it's a positive step, but we want every platform to continue doing more to call out misinformation and disinformation while also uplifting accurate information."
Psaki also referred to Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy's warning from July about the dangers of misinformation, calling it an "urgent threat."
The CEO of Rumble, a video streaming service known for being a hub of misinformation and conspiracy theories, said Feb. 7 that he'd offer Rogan $100 million over the course of four years if he brought his podcast to the company,
"This is our chance to save the world," Chris Pavlovski said in a letter to Rogan posted to Twitter. "And yes, this is totally legit."
During a question and answer portion of a recent comedy show, Rogan told a crowd he plans to stick with Spotify according to a Feb. 8 report from Hollywood Reporter.
Former President Donald Trump on Feb. 7 posted a message on his site saying Rogan shouldn't apologize for what he said. "How many ways can you say you're sorry," the former president wrote.